On October 27, 2021

For the greater good: Arwen Turner, leadership is in her nature

By Liz DiMarco Weinmann

For Come Alive Outside, the nonprofit whose mission is to “…connect folks back to nature to increase health and wellness,” it would be difficult to find an ambassador more upbeat, empathetic, and creative about enjoying nature than the organization’s executive director, Arwen Turner.

Growing up in rural northern California, in a cabin her father built, Turner forged her nature bond early. Her parents and older siblings also loved the outdoors, but young Arwen discovered that exploring nature on her own was more soothing.

“I headed outdoors for walks as a way of processing childhood anxiety and stress,” confided Turner. “My sisters were identical twins, and we had no neighbors. So, I would grab my journal and go on walks alone, loving the peace. Most of my library books were about nature, and I was a Sierra Club member by the time I was 8 years old.”

It seems logical that Turner would become the leader of a nonprofit with such a diverse array of programs for individuals of all ages, gender expressions, ethnic groups, abilities, and interests to enjoy activities outside. Like most explorers, however, she made a few other attractive discoveries on the way to Come Alive Outside.

After college, Turner landed a job with Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) in California and became determined to secure an international assignment. As she put it, “I worked hard to get experience in every single department — programs, training, grant-writing, marketing and, of course, sales of those world-famous cookies.”

Ultimately, Turner became the youngest person at GSUSA to assume a role overseeing the organization’s relationship with the military communities in Okinawa and South Korea. “On any given day, I could be meeting with military commanders in the morning and then with little Girl Scouts in the afternoon. In a place where I couldn’t speak the language or read it, I had to learn on my feet how to be resourceful,” she said.

Turner credits her four years with GSUSA in Asia as crucial in helping her develop the empathy, resilience, and humility she and others value in a leader. It was there that she also met her husband, Paul, today her equally cheery partner trekking across valleys, hills, and woods.

As a self-described large-bodied woman, Turner’s success at Girl Scouts USA evolved into a quest to serve organizations focused more on celebrating body acceptance. It led her to a post as chief operating officer of Project HEAL, a nonprofit dedicated to breaking down systemic, healthcare, and financial barriers to eating disorder treatments, and to her role at Come Alive Outside.

“Before Project HEAL, I felt that someone who looked like me would not be considered for an executive director role. At Project HEAL, however, I connected easily with smart, powerful leaders who looked more like me, and I declared, ‘Yes, I can do that too!’”

Local landscape executive Russ Marsan brought Come Alive Outside to Rutland in 2016. Since then, the organization has educated and engaged thousands of individuals to participate in programs that celebrate the emotional as well as physical benefits of nature.

Marsan, who serves as Come Alive Outside’s board chair, credits Turner’s commitment and vision during the pandemic as bringing about a profound and timely transformation. “Through Arwen’s leadership, CAO has grown to serve not only a greater percentage of Vermont’s population, but to reach and engage people in 48 of the 50 states.”

Green Mountain Power vice president Steve Costello, an avid nature photographer, marathon runner, community booster, champion of the Rutland Art series, and member of CAO’s steering committee, also has effusive praise for Turner.

“From day one, Arwen brought an incredible positivity and openness to others that is quite remarkable,” he said. “That makes her effective in building coalitions, teams, and momentum.  She’s so likeable, she can get just about anyone to do just about anything for the community!”

Turner praises her staff and partners, emphasizing, “We don’t do this alone. We partner with hundreds of healthcare providers, hospitals, schools, parks and recreation departments, local businesses, departments of health and other non-profits to get our programs out there.”

Highlights of CAO programs:

  • Mile-A-Day encourages individuals and teams from different worksites to establish and track healthy walking habits. The program, supported by major Vermont employers, has now expanded throughout North America.
  • The school-age Passports program provide students with incentives to win prizes for visiting local parks, farmers’ markets and community events outdoors, and complete tasks along the way.
  • Outdoor Wellness Passports connect adults with nature to decrease stress and anxiety.
  • ParkRx is part of a national program that supports participants after they receive an outdoors prescription from their doctor.
  • Design Challenge partners students with landscape professionals to design and build engaging outdoor learning environments at schools and childcare facilities.

The next big priority for Come Alive Outside is to raise funds to build apps for several of these programs. Turner explained: “We want to connect folks with hyper-local outdoor experiences regardless of where they live. This could be a local park, or their own front porch or backyard, where they can meditate, do Zumba, grow something they can eat, or play unplugged.”

It’s a purpose Arwen Turner feels privileged to fulfill, to help others discover and enjoy nature in fun, innovative, and meaningful ways. No doubt she fondly recalls her days as a young girl in rural California, out on her solitary explorations, along the way discovering joy and serenity as she heeded the call to “come alive outside.”

For more information visit: comealiveoutside.com.

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is a strategic growth specialist, nonprofit leader, business educator, and author. She is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions, lizdimarcoweinmann.com.

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